The Fish Story

The Un-Pretty Face of the Greatest Tick-Eater of All; NJDEP Issues Warnings About Wildlife in Transition

By JAY MANN | Jun 05, 2019
Photo by: Jay Mann

Surf City — There’s now even more proof that opossums should be gorgeous in the eyes of tick despisers, of which our region is overloaded – both tick- and despiser-wise.

To be sure, possums host faces so unappealing that they drop over and play dead if they accidentally glance their own reflection. Still, these long-faced American marsupials are the greatest tick eaters in North America, even outdoing imported tickatarians, like Guinea fowl. One recent read proving this comes via, in an article titled “Did You Know Possums Eat Almost All of Your Yard Ticks?”

In the write-up, Richard Ostfeld, of the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., explains a recent study, during which six wildlife species were tick-tested. The non-volunteering volunteers included wild white-footed mice, chipmunks, squirrels, opossums, veeries and catbirds. Each species was captured, caged and exposed to exactly 100 ticks each. Wait until PETA read about this cruelty.

Out of all the be-ticked test subjects, good old Pogo possum thoroughly outdid all the others when it came to offing its assigned ticks.

“I had no suspicion they’d be such efficient tick-killing animals,” Ostfeld said, noting the possums adroitly licked ticks off and swallow them. How was this proven? Let’s just say the dedicated scientists assigned to finding the proof needed to do some fine-tooth combing of scat. I’m not sure how you even word that on a résumé.

Through some sort of sciency extrapolating, Ostfeld and his scat-combing colleagues estimate that an opossum can kill about 5,000 ticks in one season. In our area, that’s just the ticks downed before lunch.

But why do possums eat ticks instead of just licking them off and spitting them out? It might be part of a possum’s famed omnivorous nature. A tick being as much as a seed with legs. Or, might ticks offer a strange nutritional benefit; a tiny key to survival? Considering this far-from-fast creature has quite successfully hung around since dino days, there is obviously something remarkably survivalistic about it. What if tick treats offer possums minute but potent dosages of some chemical stuff that acts to … who knows? Thinking far outside the box, might tick ingestion have something to do with the species’ apparent ability to stave off rabies? It’s a quantum stretch but when talking nature, the outermost fringes of bizarreness are always in play.

On that cosmic note, it’s a perfect time of year to foster a greater appreciation of our national marsupial. Considering its de-ticking tendencies, maybe create an annual Possum Appreciation Day, when we dress up like Okefenokee swamp creatures. Don’t smirk, in 1992, Georgia adopted Walt Kelly’s Pogo as the official state “'possum.”

GREAT AND SMALL: The NJDEP this week is shouting out in hopes of protecting the fastest and slowest of NJ’s wildlife, focusing on turtles and fawns. Turtles are into road-crossing times, while fawns are in their vulnerable cuddled-in-place mode.

On the turtle front, it’s more than just a case of why the turtle crosses the road – in most cases for egg-laying. It’s about momentarily sharing the road with them, mainly by being an observant driver. And offering a helping hand when safely possible.

While the DEP alert emphasizes freshwater turtle species, brackish-water diamondback terrapins are also going asphalt right about now. In fact, they’re already assigned rather elaborate “Turtle Crossing” signage.

Possibly inspiring this turtle-crossing alert are countless social media photos of mainly female turtles doggedly seeking the other side of the asphalt. Most notable are some huge snapping turtles, along with far friendlier hand-sized box turtles. Despite the size difference between the two, they’re both poke-alongs, always very appreciative of any vehicular brakes they can get when plodding pavement.

Note: Despite a snapping turtle’s bad-ass demeanor, its front end fury is pretty much a defensive ruse – providing you stay away from the business end. Since it withdraws its head into its shell before striking, it’s hard to know the extent its choppers might outwardly fire when fending off what it perceives as unwanted advances. Nonetheless, an at-risk on-road snapper can easily, albeit carefully, be picked up by the tail and hoisted to the side of the road toward which it’s aiming. Any hissing is her way of saying “Thanks, human dude.”

Far greater at highway-crossing risk are box turtles, arguably the most beloved reptile in the country. Once committed to a road crossing, it doesn’t take much to spook one into its shell. A narrow miss from a fast-passing vehicle can drive it into the ill-assumed security of its carapace, often hunkering down for a lengthy wait-things-out stay. Obviously, this does not bode well when atop a roadway. It can get very tiring.

A helping hand for a roadie box turtle is best done with a quick move to the nearest piece of non-highway habitat – again, based on the direction it’s facing. You won’t be doing much of a favor by driving it down the road  to what seems like greener pastures. Transferring one from its familiar surroundings can doom it to a life of trying to return home. For the record, even a long-lived box turtle – try 100 years for some – never travels more than a mile. Despite having their homes on their backs, they’re homebodies in a territorial way.

In a second release, the DEP warns Jerseyans about getting overly chummy up with cuddled-up whitetail fawns. And they are out there in high abundance.

Over the decades, I can’t count the number of just-born Jersey deer I’ve come upon, often all but tripping over them. Talk about ground camo beyond compare. The tan and spotted fur blends in perfectly with sundry surroundings; a thing of camouflaged beauty … as are the little buggers themselves. Such adorableness becomes problematic when bedazzled humans happen upon a curled-up whitetail young’un. All too often folks want to get up close and personal with it, or are compelled to check to see if it’s all right. Yes, it's just fine. No, it’s not abandoned. Mom is feverishly feeding to make milk. And she can get far afield, having an amazing ability to recall where in the wilderness – or human backyards, hereabouts – she left her little one(s).

Curled in place, fawns are dutifully fulfilling a strict and instinctive natural mandate: Always stay put until mom returns. However, nature has also given them an emergency out. Very early on, newborns can run with the fastest of them if forced out of hiding, as happens when humans try to inch toward them for a photo or, worse, a selfie. Once on the lam, all bets of being automatically found by mom are off. A spooked fawn can run a football field distance in short order. Moving that fast, it doesn’t even leave a decent scent trail for eagle-nosed mom to follow. Just that fast, there’s a fawn-grade disaster in the making – one that coyotes and even roaming domestic dogs are willing to cash in on.

An unfound-by-mom fawn, scared and hungry, soon sounds off. The sound is not unlike a high-pitched sheep whine, though far more pathetic. Where it had so adroitly hidden from danger while motionlessly curled in place on the ground, it now all but screams out to predators far and wide. It quickly becomes a race for the fawn, between mom and predators. Even if mom finds the fawn first, coyote have been drawn forth.

While such predator/prey interplay are all part of nature, when humans stumble in and add a new element to an otherwise well-balanced predation equation, it contorts the system. Which makes the DEP warning more apparent: “If you find a young fawn laying alone, leave it there, it is not abandoned. The mother comes back several times each day to nurse the fawn. If you’ve already picked the fawn up and brought it home, put it back. Even one or two days after removal from the wild, fawns can reunite with their mothers by returning them to where they were found.”

RUNDOWN: A whole new regime of gator/slammer/chopper blues have moved in from the south. These blues are big and bad-ass, per surfcasters who bested as many as a dozen at a pop. Boats also found them, though less concentrated. While the blues aren’t going that crazy along the South Jetty, we’re still competing with recent years for the best spring showing of big blues … ever. Add to that an ongoing run of eater blues and it seems the biomass is kicking ass. Bait is still the way to go, though.‎

The striped bass showing is what might be called normal, though it is edging toward the mighty fine realm.

I catch hell for repeatedly saying it, but this fishery is not hurting, except on the trophy end of things. I can’t get behind the anticipated radical regulatory measures meant to get bigger bass back – by over-favoring this top predatory species. It’s profoundly unfair to the rest of the fish in the sea.

In the same breath, and without being even slightly inconsistent, there is a pressing need to research why the success rates at primary striped bass spawning grounds have been so variable, often downwardly so. It’s going to come down to water chemistry more than angler harvesting.

Jumbo cownose stingrays are in the house. This somewhat early arrival of jumbo rays is putting a strain on surfcasters, literally, as they try to haul them in through the LBI suds.

The ones being taken seem to surpass the upper end of their natural growth parameters, set at a maximum of three feet across. The big ones now in the surf are pushing four feet across, wingtip to wingtip. From the photos I’ve seen, these are cownose rays, though they could be a different breed.

It’s too early to say if we’ll be seeing winged fogbank-like arrivals of these mellow members of the shark family. Schools can sport thousands of rays. One enthusiastic counter once pegged their number in the millions.

These laidback rays only become dangerous when severely spooked, i.e. when hooked and dragged ashore or onto a boat deck. That’s when their stingers start swinging madly about.

Each barb/spine/stinger/dermal denticle is covered in skin and is internally buttressed by rigid vasodentin, a strong cartilaginous material able to cut through flesh in a heartbeat. The underside of the barbs have two longitudinal grooves, running north to south. Within the grooves are venomous cells. When plunged in, the barb’s skin breaks away and exposes the pain-bearing business part of the sting. Along with excruciating pain, the toxins can cause assorted symptoms, like nausea, diarrhea and headaches. Generally, though, ER visits are seldom needed, though post-sting infections are very common and do require a serious antibiotic regimen.

In recent years – and in response to the tragic stingray-related death of Crocodile Hunter Steven Irwin – it is being highly recommended that any stingray puncture to the chest or abdomen be treated as a dire emergency.

For the multi-umpteenth time, I’ll alert that a stingray’s sting is not at the tip of the tail but way up near where the tail meets the body. Stepping on a landed ray’s tail in an effort to subdue the sting neatly allows the creature to drive home its attitudinal point.

Per experts, where rays go … so go sharks, which voraciously feed off these easy-target swimmers. I’m among many who depict rays as being pizzas with wings to the men in gray suits. Could that mean a higher shark threat for swimmers when rays are winging about? Not really, and not that there’s ever a huge shark threat to begin with. Logic dictates that sharks on the trail of rays are well fed.

Since a slew of ray-stalking sharks ply waters close to shore, numerous shoreline shark spottings and warnings are issued during summers with a heavy stingray presence. And spottings/warnings could abound this summer. On an angler-friendly front, drawn-in sharks might also be there for surfcast hooking, in a bycatch way. I’ve already heard of small brown sharks being surf-caught. Check with tackle shops on how to be gear-ready for bigger sharks – and huge rays.

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